Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Night of Havoc (Recap of VCU v. Charlotte)

Some days don't go as you plan. I had made plans for quite some time for yesterday. Hofstra was playing at UNC Wilmington. I had media credentials waiting for me, plus I was going to see my friend Brian Mull, the terrific beat writer for the Wilmington Star as well as my friend Hofstra Head Coach Mo Cassara, who I haven't seen in a long time since I moved down to Columbia, South Carolina.

Wilmington, North Carolina is a three hour and fifteen minutes drive from Columbia, South Carolina. As I started driving on I-20 at 7:30 AM, my "Check Engine" light came on. Never a good thing. But perhaps it was something minor, perhaps a sign that it was time for an oil change (which I was due for). So I found the closest Jiffy Lube, which wasn't that close to the interstate.

The service manager at Jiffy Lube told me that the light indicated a temperature sensor issue, either a coolant issue or perhaps the water pump and that the light would stay on until I took it to a repair shop to have an engine diagnostic done. Turns out also my transmission fluid was badly needed to flushed out on my 126,000 mile 2001 Honda Accord. So I agreed to a quick oil change and the transmission fluid flush.

So I got back on the road around 8:45 AM. I still could make it to Wilmington on time. But it was still about three hours away. With my family still in New York until the house closes (which is soon), I couldn't risk having my car breakdown on the highway. Thus, I sadly turned back and drove to Midlands, Honda in Columbia. I got in touch with Brian and Coach Cassara to let them know I couldn't make it.

The Honda service manager quickly took the notes on the car and noted that there was also a recent recall for the passenger airbag. I had got that recall letter and knew it had to be fixed too. As I sat in the amazing waiting room with the HD 3D TV showing "The Dark Knight" while drinking hot chocolate, I briefly lamented the fact that I would not see Brian, Coach Cassara and what turned out to be Hofstra's first road win of the season, which was a terrific effort by the Pride.

However, I had known in the back of my head that Charlotte was hosting VCU at Halton Arena last night. I had brought my IPad to write my story for the Hofstra-UNC Wilmington game and Midlands Honda had free WiFI. Were tickets still available? As I went on the Charlotte 49ers ticket site, the answer was YES! Thus I got one ticket.

It turns out it was just a sensor issue. I got my car back shortly before noon and I drove home. There I watched the Hofstra-UNC Wilmington game online, where the Pride rallied from a ten point first half deficit to defeat the Seahawks 65-56. Then after quickly sweeping up the house floors and taking a nap, I made the now familiar drive up to the campus of Charlotte.

I got my ticket from will call and entered the Student Center, where Halton Arena is located. After my ticket was scanned in, an usher asked if I wanted a program. I said "Yes, thank you." In return, I got this gorgeous program. It looked like a yearbook/media guide to me. It's the nicest free program I have ever received at a college basketball game. Nice work Charlotte Athletic Department.

As I made my way to my seats, it was pretty evident that Ram Nation had made the trip in full force. There was a good number of fans in the gold and black colors of VCU. But they were minus Chris "Pav" Crowley, the ultimate VCU fan who I have become friends with over the past couple of years thanks to Twitter and the CAA community that the Rams were once part of until joining the A-10 this season. I have maintained ties to those knowledgable, fun VCU folks on Twitter. Pav couldn't make it last night. It was also Chris' birthday this week, so Happy Birthday Pav!

Entering the game, Charlotte had defended it's home court perfectly on the season, eleven straight wins. That included wins over good conference teams such as LaSalle,  a game that I saw in person, Xavier and U-Mass. Still one female fan sitting next to me asked her boyfriend "Is this the largest crowd of the season. Seems like it". Turns out it was the second largest crowd of the season, 8,794 in attendance. The previous home game vs. UMass had 9,100 in attendance.

This was going to be a battle between one of the top fifty teams in the country in effective field goal percentage defense, Charlotte, and the number one team in the country in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage, VCU. I had seen Charlotte's guard length give LaSalle fits. But the 49ers were now without two of their best players. DeMario Mayfield, their best three point shooter, has been suspended from the team and J.T. Thompson is out for the season with a torn ACL.

The Charlotte pep band and student section were ready for Ram Nation. The band started with a very good version of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" and were solid all night. The student section did their part during the VCU team introduction by drowning out Ram nation with a loud chant of "FORTY - NINERS".

Charlotte scored the first basket on a Willie Clayton offensive rebound and putback. But VCU responded with an 8-0 spurt, which included forcing two 49er turnovers. Rob Brandenburg's jumper put the Rams up 8-2 barely with 16:55 left in the first half.

Barely three minutes into the game, Charlotte senior forward Chris Braswell was already incurring the wrath of the fans in my section, 217 Row K. Braswell had missed three jumpers and committed a turnover. When they saw Braswell camped out by the three point line, which he is warranted to do sometimes, one fan yelled "Braswell, don't shoot a three pointer, because you always miss them!" The fan knew what he was talking about as Braswell attempts nearly two three point attempts per game and is shooting 22.5 percent from beyond the arc on the season.

VCU extended their lead to ten, 18-8 on a Treveon Graham three pointer. Nine minutes into the game, the Rams had forced five turnovers and hit on more than half their shots. A Juvonte Reddic jumper with about eight and a half minutes left in the half kept VCU's lead at ten, 22-12.

But Charlotte ramped up their intensity on both sides of the ball and went on a 10-0 run over the next four plus minutes. The 49ers gave the Rams a little bit of their own medicine, forcing two turnovers in the span, which led to four Charlotte points. Terrance Williams' jumper tied the game at 22 with a little more than four minutes left in the half. The 49ers' fans were the loudest I had heard them in the three Charlotte games I had attended on the season. Shaka Smart was forced to call timeout as Halton Arena was rocking.

But off the timeout, Smart got the ball in the hands of Brandenburg who calmly buried a three pointer to put VCU up three, 25-22. The next play that ensued was the craziest play on the night. Chris Braswell had an open two on one break for an easy layup. But as he awkwardly dribbled toward the basket, he fumbled the ball, much to the displeasure of the fans by me. But fortunately for Braswell, Clayton was there and put in the layup to cut the Rams lead to one, 25-24.

VCU though would end the half outscoring Charlotte 9-4. With 00.1 seconds left in the half, Theus leaned into Charlotte's Pierria Henry on a jumper. The jumper was good and the foul was called on Henry. Theus would make the free throw and the Rams would go into halftime up 34-28.

After an entertaining halftime show by a local acrobatic fitness group (Astro Fitness I believe), the 49ers had an inauspicious start to the second half. They committed turnovers on each of their first two possessions. However Charlotte maintained their striking distance to VCU, still only down six, 41-35 with fifteen and a half minutes in the game.

But the turnovers kept coming for the 49ers. Their fourth and fifth turnovers on consecutive possessions led to Rams' baskets. After Henry committed a turnover, Reddic's layup put VCU up ten, 45-35 with fourteen minutes left in the game. A Brandenburg layup and two Reddic free throws extended the Rams lead to twelve, 49-37.

The 49ers chipped away at the lead with a 5-0 mini spurt over two plus minutes. A layup by Hentry made it 49-42 with 8:54 left. But Charlotte could have made the score much closer in that time frame had they not missed four free throws; two by Clayton, one by Darion Clark and one by Braswell, who was ingratiating himself with the fans more and more as the game progressed.

After Henry's layup cut the lead to seven, sensing a momentum shift, Smart again called timeout. And again off the timeout, it was Brandenburg who made the 49ers pay for their missed chances. He buried a three pointer and followed with a layup to extend the Rams lead back to twelve, 54-42 with seven a half minutes left.

Charlotte again responded with four straight points to cut the lead to eight again, 54-46. But for the third time in the game, Smart called timeout. And for the third time again, Brandenburg responded burying a three to put the Rams up eleven, 57-46 with six minutes left. A little bit later, Troy Daniels finally got into the act, hitting his first three pointer on the night to put the Rams up twelve, 62-48 with four and a half minutes left in the game.

It was at this time that the 49ers' fans had seen enough. They started leaving in droves. And even when Terrance Williams' ridiculously banked in a three pointer to make the score 66-57 with one minute left, the mass exodus from Halton Arena was well under way. The 49ers put in a meaningless last second basket to make the final VCU 68 Charlotte 61. Thus ended the 49ers undefeated streak at Halton this season.

With Graham in foul trouble for most of the game, Brandenburg and Reddic stepped up for the Rams. Brandenberg had twenty one points on seven of twelve shooting including three 3-pointers. Reddic added fourteen points on six of nine shooting and added three blocks and two steals. Graham still had twelve points for the Rams who shot nearly fifty two percent from the field against one of the better field goal defensive teams in the nation. VCU also scored twenty three points off seventeen Charlotte turnovers.

Charlotte had a good shooting night against VCU, shooting over fifty one percent themselves. But what killed the 49ers was a) The turnovers, b) Shooting one of seven from beyond the arc (Williams' lucky three was the only three pointer for Charlotte on the night), while VCU shot seven of eighteen from beyond the arc and c) an abysmal twelve of twenty two from the line. Willliams had thirteen points and Clayton added twelve. With Mayfield now gone for the rest of the season, Charlotte's other two leading scorers on the season, Braswell and Henry, combined for only sixteen points on five of nineteen shooting (the rest of Charlotte shot nineteen of twenty eight from the field.

With the win, VCU remains tied for first in the tight Atlantic-10 with Butler and Saint Louis at 7-2. With the loss, Charlotte dropped all the way to a seventh place with Temple and George Washington , two teams that have beaten them, at 5-4. The bright side for the 49ers is that UMass, LaSalle and Xavier are all tied for fourth at 6-3. Charlotte has already beaten all three of those teams.

Only two games separate the first place team from the ninth place team in the Atlantic-10. The Atlantic-10 is the perfect microcosm to the wild 2012-13 college basketball season. Perhaps it's not just a night of havoc, but a season of havoc.

That's VCU's type of season.

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